Case study - panic and agoraphobia

Sue conquered her agoraphobia one step at a time, starting with a visit to her GP.

Time to read: 5 minutes

Sue, 30 years old, recently left the RAN after ten years of active service

I remember my first panic attack like it was yesterday. I guess I’d always been an anxious type, but this was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I was at a football game about six years ago. It was a big crowd, and St Kilda was getting hammered by the Pies.

I’ve never liked being hemmed in, feeling like I was stuck somewhere I couldn’t get out of easily, but suddenly this thing just took over me. I felt pains in my chest and I couldn’t breathe. I was sure I was having a heart attack and was going to die. I started thinking about my daughter – she was two at the time – and I kept saying to myself "it can’t end like this, I’ve got to see her again".

I was sweating, my heart was racing, I was trembling ... I had to get out of there.

Somehow, I managed to push my way through the crowd and find a St John’s ambo.

What a relief!

He helped me to the ambulance and they took me straight to hospital, wired me up to all sorts of machines and then ... they told me there was nothing wrong! Or as one of nurses put it, "it was all in my head".

All in my head?

Those pains were real. But all they said was that I’d had a panic attack. I was so happy to be alive, I didn’t ask them more about it. I just wanted to get home.

From that day, my life hasn't been the same. Especially my Navy career.

I've only been back to sea once. My skills are needed more on shore than at sea, thank God, but that last exercise was terrifying.

I spent the whole time worrying about whether I’d have an attack while we were far from land so I avoided being below decks whenever I could. In total, I’ve had about a dozen attacks and each one was terrifying.

I’ve stopped going anywhere that I can’t get out of easily in case I have another one. No shopping centres. No cinemas. No football games. No public transport. No crowded places.

I left the Navy because I couldn’t face going to sea again.

Help yourself

Everything came to a head when we were planning my daughter’s 8th birthday.

She wanted me to take her and a couple of friends into the city on the train to see a movie. But due to my panic attacks, I told her I couldn’t risk it ... then I got angry with her ... then I had a big fight with my husband about it.

It became obvious I couldn't go on like this any longer. I wasn't the only one suffering; it was now affecting my family.

The first step was seeing my GP, who told me I had panic disorder (which I guess I already knew) and something called 'agoraphobia'. That’s the part where I won’t go anywhere in case I have an attack.

He gave me a script for tablets to take if I felt a panic attack coming on, and referred me to a psychologist.

The psychologist explained everything about panic attacks and anxiety, emphasising that it was important to know I wasn't having a heart attack and I wouldn't die from it.

She explained there were different strategies to manage and prevent panic attacks, and the medication she prescribed was a last resort.

The more she explained what was happening, the more sense my panic attacks made. The tablets help to stop the attacks when they’re happening, but they don’t do anything to prevent another one. She says I can only learn how to control them if I let myself risk having one.

After a few months' treatment, I think we’re on the right track.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about my breathing. She says I’m "hyperventilating", that my body is getting ready for fight or flight when there’s no danger there. I’ve been practising the exercises she gave me and I really do feel more in control.

The next step is to start getting back to do the things I’ve been avoiding. That’s scary, but she says I can do it in small steps. And she’s started to talk about how my thoughts play a part.

I’m a long way from 'cured', but I feel much more confident now and my husband says he can see it, too.

My daughter's 9th birthday doesn't feel so scary now.

TAKE ACTION

If you or someone you know is struggling with panic attacks or agoraphobia, start by visiting a GP. Your GP can refer you or your loved one to specialists and can prescribe medication if appropriate.

AT-Ease has more information about panic with and without agoraphobia, including self-help tools.

If you've served at least one day in the ADF, specialist help is available, including:

Make sure you register with MyService to access the support you're entitled to, and always tell your GP that you're a veteran. Specialist health services are available to the veteran community. Your military service my also be relevant to diagnoses from your GP.

Open Arms - Veterans & Families Counselling supports defence members, ex-serving members, veterans and their families with free, confidential counselling for individuals and group-based programs. Call Open Arms on 1800 011 046.